Saturday, August 16, 2008

Transactive Memory

An interesting take on memory and the internet:

How the Internet may change what we remember

Without further comment.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Stanislaw Lem on Note-taking

Stanislaw Lem reports in an autobiographical essay, translated as "Reflections on My Life" (in Stanislaw Lem, MicroWorld. Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich, 1982, pp. 1-44) that his "method of creating" or "behavior as a writer" slowly changed during his life. In his early years, he was motivated by "the spontaneity of the beginning." But later his approach shifted towars first "gaining a basic idea, a conception, an imaginative notion ... I started to produce an increasing number of notes, fictitious encyclopedias, and small additional ideas" (p. 23). He then wrote at first "only brief synopses or, again, critical reviews of sociological treatises, scientific papers, and technical reference works"--which often, but not always, had their context in the imaginary world he was developing. He describes the relation of his notes to the literary work in different ways. One of them is as follows:
A cow produces milk--that is certain--and the milk doesn't come from nothing. Just as a cow must eat grass in order to produce milk, I have to read large ammounts of genuine scientific literature of all kinds--i.e. literature not invented by me--and the final product, my writing, is as unlike the intellectual food as milk is unlike grass (p. 25).

I think that is the way it should be. Notes are fodder. If the final product of one's research retains the character of the notes upon which it is based, something has gone wrong.

So much is sure. The question that remains to be answered is how the material gets transformed into something new and original.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

External Memory

Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber's The Art of Time (New York: Addison Wesley, 1991) is in my view one of the best books on so-called "time management." It is better than the run of the mill simply because it is more thoughtful than most. [1] One thing I like, for instance, is that it is not just about "productivity" or "management." Life should not be run like a business.

He relates on pp. 113f. that he has "inherited three things from [his] father: a pair of gold cuff links, a love of dogs, and a habit of writing on small memo pads. I know that these little rectangles of white paper are much more precious than banknotes and I owe a large part of my effectiveness to them." He makes
for each passing idea, a memo; for each thing to do, a memo. And only one item per memo, which is thrown away when the idea has served its purpose or the thing has been done. What makes this system terrific is that one can put a pad in every room of one's home (and in one's pocket) and one can easily project each memo into the future. So there is no excuse for not immediately writing down what crosses your mind and, even if it concerns something six weeks away, for not remembering it when the day comes.

He also tells us that he has "a standard-size folder with thirty-two compartments (one for every day, plus one for what goes beyond the month)." He calls this his "cardboard Memory."

Long before David Allen and GTD, he found that this cardboard memory relieved his own memory "of all these details and frees it up for what is important, creative, or fun."

His use of rectangular memo pages reminds me of the method Richard Rhodes describes in his How To Write (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.: 1995):
We keep jars of pencils and three-by-five index cards in card holders everywhere in our house. Ideas come to you day and night when you're writing: a convenient stash of cards and pencils ... makes it easy to write them down. The cards are small and sturdy enough to slip into a shirt pocket or to organize on a desktop without blowing away. I have ten years of notes on three-by-fives toward a work of fiction I've been planning. It's a diligent mole; it seems to tunnel along tirelessly below consciousness, popping up at odd hours with treasures in its claws. For the first few years I simply threw the cards into a file. Then I happened to pull them out and read them. Worried that fire ... might destroy them, I spent the next day typing them into a computer file. Now I add them to that file within a day or so of writing them but keep the originals as well in a separate place" (32).[2]
This is pretty much the method I follow. I keep mechanical pencils and 3X5 cards in strategic places in our house. I also always carry a short pencil and note-paper, and everything gets eventually transferred into the computer (if not every day, then at least once a week).[3]



1. Those who find this book interesting, might also like Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber, The Return of Courage. New York: Addison Wesley, 1987 and L. Rust Hills, How To Do Things Right. The Relations of a Fussy Man. Boston: David Godine Publishers, 1993.
2. This, in turn, sounds very similar to Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995): "I have index cards and pens all over the house - by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, by the phones, and I have them in the glove compartment of my car. I carry one with me in my back pocket when I take my dog for a walk. In fact, I carry it folded lengthwise, if you need to know, so that, God forbid, I won't look bulky. You may want to consider doing the same. I don't even know you, but I bet you have enough on your mind without having to worry about whether or not you look bulky. So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse - in which there are actual notepads, let along index cards - I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact line of dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card back in my pocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers--as if it has just come back to me--and I take out my index card and scribble it down."
3. I do prefer to take notes on my Alphasmart Neo or Dana, but this is not always convenient

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Limits of ConnectedText

As I said before, I use ConnectedText to keep my research notes, rough drafts, and snippets of information. Today I found out something I did not know about the maximum number of topics.

It is determined by the Firebird SQL engine. Theoretically, it can accommodate 16 billion topics, but the realistic size limit of the database is 4 GB. While there is a limit to the length of topics, it is quite quite generous at more than 32 MB. Furthermore, neither topic length and the number of topics affect program stability.

The bigger the topic the more time is needed to render it. The time for a full text search time grows linearly with the number of topics, but it is pretty quick.

I now have 6200 topics in my largest project (or a file of about 14.5 MB). Roland Barthes had 15.000 Jules Verne had 25.000 at the end of his life, Luhmann ended up with 35.000. But they were all limited by paper.

It's good to know that I would not even come close to the limits of ConnectedText, even if were to reach the number 50.000.